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Sophocles, Oedipus the King


Historical background
Sophocles was 28 years younger than his mentor Aeschylus, and won his first City Dionysia drama competition (against Aeschylus himself!) at the age of 28, in 468 B.C.E. After that, he never fell below second place in the competition. He is credited with certain innovations in the tragic form, including the addition of the third actor and the introduction of scene-painting. He also shifted the dramatic focus toward interpersonal, rather than human-divine, interaction. Interestingly enough, Oidipous tyrannos or Oedipus the King (which he wrote at the age of 70 or so) was not one of the plays for which he won first prize at the Dionysia.

-oidipous tyrannos-
Interestingly, Oedipus's name (Oidipous) has several possible meanings, depending on how you break it down. Oidos means "swollen" and pous mean "foot," so it could be a reference to his feet, scarred from the hobbling incident when he was a baby; then again, oida means "I know," so it could mean "I know the foot" (sounds meaningless until you recall that Oedipus it was who solved the riddle of the Sphinx:
Q: What goes on four feet in the morning, on two feet at noon, and on three feet in the evening?
A: A man.
In this context, "to know the foot" means "to know the man": or, as the inscription at Delphi said, to know oneself). Finally, pou means "where," so Oedipus's name could be translated "I know where." Consider the interplay of knowledge, feet, and location in this drama of identity.

The word tyrannos does not have the same subjective meaning as our English word "tyrant." It referred to a political leader who ruled somewhat like a king (basileos), but gained his power through popularity among the masses (hoi polloi), instead of by dynastic and/or religious "right." In Athens, tyranny served as an intermediate stage between monarchy and democracy. Oedipus is a tyrannos because he holds the throne of Thebes by virtue of his achievements (saving Thebes from the Sphinx, marrying Jocasta) rather than by heredity. Or so he thinks....

Popular misconceptions
Oedipus the King
is such a well-known play that in the last 2300-odd years (since Aristotle used examples from Oedipus to illustrate his theories about tragedy in the Poetics) some popular misconceptions have grown up around it:

  1. a superstitious attachment to Aristotle's term hamartia (flaw, failure, error; often mistranslated as "tragic flaw") has caused generations of students to assume that Oedipus's fate descends upon him as punishment for some moral shortcoming in his character. In fact, it is made clear throughout the play that Oedipus is a legitimate hero, the savior of Thebes from the Sphinx (see below), a wise and kindly ruler. How then can we make sense of what happens to him?
  2. the Aeschylus-Herodotus tradition of oracles suggests that Oedipus should have been more careful. If he had been wise enough to interpret the Delphic Oracle correctly, he wouldn't be in this mess. However, Sophocles uses the oracle differently from his renowned predecessor. His oracle does not offer Oedipus advice ("Do not do X") or a choice ("If you do X, Y will happen"); rather, it states categorically, "You will...." How does Sophocles make this unconditional oracle work dramatically?
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